By Bryce Gray, Sarah Kramer, Neil Murthy, Danielle Prieur, Kevin Stark and Jia You –

As the leaves turn gold in southwest Wisconsin each fall, climate scientists from around the world gather there to share their latest findings on the causes and impacts of abrupt climate change.

This Comer Family Foundation’s annual conference on abrupt climate change draws leaders in the field  to address some of the Earth’s most pressing climate change puzzles and needs.

The scientists agree that as temperatures and carbon dioxide levels rise, the Earth faces increased threats of fresh water shortages, coastal flooding and extreme weather events. Trying to determine the speed and potential impact of a changing climate, Comer scientists representing institutions across the world pursue field research from Africa to the Swiss Alps.

“This ultimately comes down to a simple thing as it is easier to break something than to build it,” said Richard Alley, professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University. “When we think about what we are doing to the climate, cranking up CO2, it’s very, very unlikely that it turns the planet into Eden.”

Climate scientist and author Richard Alley plays a pivotal role at the Comer Family Foundation’s annual Conference on Abrupt Climate Change. (Sarah Kramer/Medill)

The researchers found that much of their data from all over the globe seemed to coalesce around a few key ranges in time, suggesting that the researchers from across disciplines might be zeroing on a much more precise picture about the nature of climate change through the ages.

Much of the research on display looked to the past to better predict possible climate responses, from the collapse of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica to historical variations in volcanic activity. Presenters also discussed advances in green technology and how our ancestors adapted to previous changes in climate.

One of the major questions facing the scientific community is how researchers can effectively communicate the exponential nature of abrupt climate change. Current climate models are built on scientists’ best knowledge about climate indicators like sea level rise, glaciers and the chemical composition of the oceans, but there may be other drivers or effects scientists have yet to decipher. This means that while nearly 200 countries pledged in Paris to limit warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the world may soon be reaching a tipping point where this will no longer be possible.

The uncertainties in climate change research should motivate the public and policymakers to do more, not less, to address the potentially devastating consequences of abrupt climate change, said Alley. People buy auto insurance to protect themselves from the uncertainties of having a car accident. The most important story we need to tell about climate change is that adaptation will help the economy, he added.

Author and consultant Philip Conkling told the audience of predominantly scientists that the secret is in telling “character-driven stories about how climate is affecting real people’s lives.” Conkling cofounded the Island Institute in 1983 to examine climate change through the lens of communities along Maine’s sensitive archipelago. Philip Conkling & Associates helps not-for-profits and implement communications goals and strategic plans.

Philip Conkling says the importance of the climate change story is best told through local eyes. (Sarah Kramer/Medill)
Philip Conkling says the importance of the climate change story is best told through local eyes. (Sarah Kramer/Medill)

Klaus Lackner, director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions and professor at Arizona State University, is already working on a promising technology to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Mitigation, he said, has to be a solution in order to repair the considerable damage already done by burning carbon. “I am now convinced that we will have to do carbon storage, carbon sequestration or carbon disposal,” said Lackner.

Many of the other scientists at the conference are looking at to the past to see how ancient climate shifts played out, even without human interference. The scientific community is hoping to understand the conditions before, after and during previous warming periods in order to make better predictions about our planet’s future.

Christine Chen, a third-year Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studies lakes in the Andes Mountains in order to predict future precipitation patterns. “Water availability is a huge issue there,” said Chen, referring to the Central Andes region where she conducted her fieldwork. “Reconstructing how precipitation patterns changed in the past is highly relevant to what is happening and what is going to happen in these regions in the future.”

Klaus Luckner explains the device he designed to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. (Sarah Kramer/Medill)
Klaus Luckner explains the carbon capture prototype he is designing to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. (Sarah Kramer/Medill)

University of Nevada Ph.D. candidate Ben Hatchett is pursuing research that could help us understand the future of drought and water shortages closer to home. His model identifying the influence of temperature and precipitation over time on water levels in western Nevada’s Walker Lake watershed found that drought severity doesn’t all come down to precipitation.

“We can see that the impact of temperature is very important,” Hatchett said. Ongoing drought conditions are “on par” with historic anomalies in terms of precipitation, he said, but warns that the same does not hold true for temperature where megadroughts don’t reflect an earlier precedent.

“The temperature [now] could be pushing us outside the realm of the natural variability,” Hatchett said. With the arid western U.S. projected to warm even more in the future, that means additional pressure applied to strained water resources.

Many presentations showed powerful evidence that something big happened to atmospheric circulation in the Southern Hemisphere approximately18,000 years ago, when glaciers last reached their maximum extent in the last major ice age.  Mike Kaplan, geologist at Columbia University, has been working in Patagonia, at the southern tip of the Andes Mountains. Scientists had previously assumed the area only contained records of older ice masses. But during his 2013 field season, Kaplan and his colleagues found glacial deposits dating to that last glacial maximum. Kaplan’s work could provide crucial clues to when exactly the ice age started and ended in the Southern Hemisphere, furthering scientists’ understanding of how the climate system works.

With the world’s glaciers withering away, caves are emerging as an increasingly important setting for scientists to collect climate data. This past summer, Gina Moseley of the University of Innsbruck in Australia led the Northeast Greenland Caves Project. The group studied the mineral build-up in caves that creates formations such as stalagmites and stalactites, called speleothems, in order to try to fill in gaps in Greenland’s ice core records, especially around the last interglacial period – a stretch approximately 130,000 years ago, when warm temperatures disrupted ice formation.

Moseley and her spelunking colleagues are part of an increasingly popular field. The journal Science noted in 2006 that: “For paleoclimate, the past two decades have been the age of the ice core. The next two may be the age of the speleothem,” spire-like mineral deposits in caves that include stalagmites and stalactites.

While scientists have so far observed global warming of just less than a degree, the oceans could be distorting the true extent of the impact on the atmosphere of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, said Jeff Severinghaus, professor of geosciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, part of the University of California at San Diego.

Jeff Severinghaus participates in one of the lively discussions that follow every Comer presentation. (Sarah Kramer/Medill)
Jeff Severinghaus participates in one of the lively discussions that follow each scientist’s presentations at the Comer Conference. (Sarah Kramer/Medill)

“The deep ocean is so enormous and it is a huge reservoir of cold water and it is becoming a little less cold right now. It means that it will take about 100 years to realize the full warming of 2 degrees. If we continue to burn fossil fuel we will be committing to more than 2 degrees.”

The implications of forces other than temperature make the climate puzzle even more challenging. Other presenters explored drivers of climate change that we could be missing. For example, Guleed Ali’s research on Mono Lake Basin in California suggested that scientists might have reframe current thinking about temperature and evaporation and consider other factors such as the jet stream.

Low temperatures during Earth’s ancient cold snaps should have meant decreased evaporation, and thus higher lake levels. But Ali’s research suggests that Mono Lake was likely as low as it is today. This data indicates that temperature and evaporation, both of which scientists consider drivers of the lake’s water level, seemed to have had a negligible role.

Ali has hypothesized that the North Atlantic Ocean’s circulation and its jet stream instead controlled climate then and now, “What I think might be controlling these lake levels is the state of the tropical circulation and the state of the North Atlantic Ocean’s circulation,” Ali said. “What I think is a possibility, just working hypothesis… is that the strength of the circulation in the North Atlantic Ocean is the controlling factor of the hydro-climate certainly in Mono Lake and much of western U.S.”

Some of the first scientists to lead the charge in researching climate change help organize the conference each year, including glaciologist George Denton of the University of Maine at Orono. Denton spoke on the collapse of the Antarctic ice sheets but, like other climate veterans at the conference, came to hear from the new generation of climate researchers. Many of them are Denton’s current or former students, presenting findings in a field where he has contributed several decades of research.

Richard Alley, Wallace Broecker and George Denton worked with the late Gray Comer to establish an international abrupt climate change research program.
Richard Alley, Wallace Broecker and George Denton worked with the late Gray Comer to establish an international abrupt climate change research program. (Medill Photo)

Climate change science pioneer Wally Broecker, the first scientist to use the term “global warming” in a 1975 paper for Science, is among the founders of the Comer Foundation’s climate change research program. In 2001, the late entrepreneur and philanthropist Gary Comer sought out Broecker, an oceanographer, geochemist and professor of geology at Columbia University. Partnering with Denton and Alley, the four men created a fellows program working with mentor scientists at 31 institutions to support the next generation of researchers and research on abrupt climate change. Seed money and grants also support seminal research in the field, with more than 125 global research projects on abrupt climate change supported since 2005.

In the opening remarks for the second day of talks, Alley spoke movingly on the origins of the conference and the Comer Family Foundation. Comer, founder of Lands’ End outfitting company and a native Chicagoan, started the foundation in 1986 to promote education, healthcare and the environment.

Dec. 22, 2015

Photo at top: Climate scientists Peter Strand (left) and Aaron Putnam (right) hike through the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia during their summer 2015 field season. Putnam and Strand’s research on the glaciers of central Asia is one of the many projects funded by the Comer Family Foundation. (Sarah Kramer/Medill)


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